Walt Disney Pictures (March 13 2009), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (August 4 2009), BD plus DVD and Digital Copy disc, 99 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, DTS-HD 5.1 and Dolby Digital, Rated PG, Retail: $44.99
Two supposedly normal children gradually reveal their secret and put their trust in a taxi cab driver who is their only chance at helping them make it back to the mysterious Witch Mountain, where interstellar transport awaits to take them home.
The Sweatbox Review:
In 1975, Walt Disney Productions released a film that was the first of what could arguably be called a more sophisticated type of Disney picture, an attempt to catch up with an audience that had begun to leave such films behind. Hayley Mills and Dean Jones may have entertained in the 1960s, and Kurt Russell’s Dexter Riley college comedies may well have been fun, but this was a grittier 1970s, when movies had moved away from lavish spectacles and comedies, toward thrillers and crime mysteries. Based on Alexander Key’s book and directed by John Hough, Escape To Witch Mountain still contained the basic Disney elements (magic kids, flying vehicles and the like) but also a degree of intensity, and very good performances.
Hough was an unusual choice of director, not being a Disney regular like Robert Stevenson or Vincent McEveety, and best known at that point for the all-out horror picture The Legend Of Hill House, featuring Roddy McDowell. It was this lack of Mouse House influence that gave Escape its distinction, and Hough and the Studio were rewarded with enough success to warrant a sequel, Return From Witch Mountain, featuring no less than Bette Davis and Christopher Lee as the villains, which ironically may have been more kid-geared but still played on a more mature level. Eventually, these kinds of films (among them Dragonslayer, Tron and, again with Davis and directed by Hough, The Watcher In The Woods) led to such movies as Splash, Country and the developing of the adult Touchstone Films banner.
So we somewhat come full circle again with Race To Witch Mountain, an in-your-face update that I’m not sure is closer to the original book or film (or either). Not having read Key’s novel, I would bet that Hough’s 1975 take is closer to the intent, given that a later 1990s TV version followed the same plot. Here, new man at the helm Andy Fickman gives us a freely adapted story in which only the central concept is retained: an otherworldly brother and sister are stuck on Earth and must engage the trust and help of a human to get them to a destination that will enable them to return home. In the original, the implication wasn’t exactly that these were aliens, but this being a time in movies where every little detail apparently has to be explained, here there is no doubt to their lineage.
As such, it’s not actually a detail that derails the movie, which even from the initial previews looked to be an inoffensive if redundant remake. The result is an entertaining Disney picture of the kind we haven’t seen in a while: there’s no comic-ready sidekick to keep sprouting the one-liners (not that the film doesn’t contain a nice line in dry humor) and it’s not a film packed with pop-culture references, even if it is stuffed with some seriously geeky in-jokes. As the kids, I have been impressed with AnnaSophia Robb since Bridge To Terabithia a couple of years ago, and only recently realised I had seen her even earlier, as Violet Beauregarde in Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, when I saw that film again. Here, she paradoxically looks younger than she did in Terabithia, but she brings a good deal of understanding to her role, as does Alexander Ludwig as her brother, really making a mark for himself in his first major part.
In tried and tested fashion, the kids must partner with a human in order to cross country and make it to the titular mountain, and here their man is Dwayne Johnson, dropping his wrestler tag “The Rock” from his billing, perhaps in an attempt to carve his serious acting career out further. He’s actually pretty decent, in an action movie star way, with a nice repartee evident with the kids and female lead Carla Gugino, who comes along for the ride also. Hot on their trail, and instead of the original millionaire out to use the kids’ special powers for his own nefarious means, is a more obvious shady government unit, which doesn’t really add or detract from the movie but does make everything feel a little more regular and hum-drum in the predictable stakes, especially in a final break-in to Witch Mountain itself to recover the aliens ship.
Adding to the danger is an organically engineered bounty hunter, sent by the aliens to despatch of the kids before they can complete their mission, for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Though this creature might provide a few extra scares, it’s an unneeded bolt-on and feels a little Terminator-lite, which may or may not be the appropriate nod the filmmakers were going for. Other nods to various franchises and science-fiction in general are more obvious: cab driver Johnson is plagued by a couple of Stormtroopers wanting to get to a geek convention, and there are moments reminiscent of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind when Johnson and the kids are being scanned for by the alien bounty hunter and in the Mountain itself. There are many more tips of the hat to other influences, especially the 1975 original movie, and I had a very fun time picking up such things as Johnson’s taxi licence number and various other Witch Mountain and general Disney movie references (a particularly nice touch was seeing Meredith Salenger as news reporter Natalie Gann).
Best of these winks to real fans is the return of Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann to the Witch Mountain franchise: they were the original brother and sister in Hough’s movie, and they return here in especially neat roles as a waitress and sheriff, respectively, who appropriately offer the kids help when they most need it. Fickman doesn’t shoehorn any of this in, and does a good job overall of serving up a good old fashioned chase yarn. It could be said that the film does eventually become tied up in being one long pursuit, and that it doesn’t really deliver anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s all done with a high spirited nature without any of the individual elements unbalancing the rest of the whole, such as when Disney regular Cheech Marin shows up for a moment. Even performer-director Garry Marshall (most recently of the Princess Diaries movies), whom I was worried might swamp his cameo scene as Dr Donald Harlan (see what they did there?), brings a slight undercurrent of menace to his worldly wise character.
In the end, this Race may not compete with the best science-fiction or action movies, but there’s some big enjoyment to be had and this is a first-rate production as one would expect from the House Of Mouse. It’s not particularly as intelligent a film as Hough’s original, but the material has still been taken seriously, and not turned into a free for all mess. After all, a movie that contains a quote (however briefly it flashes up onscreen in the opening titles) from a “Dr Benjamin Simon” can’t be bad at all, eh!?
Is This Thing Loaded?
Wow…a three-disc set!? What goodies can we expect to find here? Well, um, after that initial excitement…practically none, and certainly nothing that warrants the high cost for the value inside. Following the now-standard route of Disney’s Blu-ray and DVD “combos”, it wouldn’t be such an insult if either disc actually featured some supplemental material of any real worth. Both discs open up, or have selectable from dedicated menus, a number of the usual previews, in one way or another here promoting Snow White, Princess And The Frog, Hannah Montana The Movie, Up, Santa Buddies, Ponyo, Tinker Bell And The Lost Treasure, Disneynature’s Earth, and Disney XD, Parks, Blu-ray and Movie Rewards, but, naturally, none of the exciting trailers for the main feature itself.
The regular DVD, a FastPlay disc for those that like that (and – be warned – a spoilerrific menu for those jumping ahead), does contain a couple of extras, the main one of interest being a series of Deleted Scenes with optional intros by director Andy Fickman, who does the usual explaining of why these moments were cut (usually for “pacing” reasons, since the film was called Race To Witch Mountain and not Leisurely Stroll To Witch Mountain). Running over 23 minutes in a Play All configuration, there are a couple of fairly nice ideas to be found among the trims, but nothing that feels it should have been left in the movie, though there’s an extended goodbye sequence that ramps up the emotions.
The only other extra of note is a three and a half minute collection of Bloopers, mainly centered around Johnson adlibbing on set, the adults flubbing their lines and, it has to be said, AnnaSophia Robb coming off as a potential little diva in the making (though she may have just been having a couple of off days, perhaps?). Rounding things up is the family-friendly plug Blu-ray Is Suite! from The Suite Life’s Dylan and Cole Sprouse, which has turned up on Disney DVDs in the past and is overlong at almost six minutes. Fun info slightly distorted from reality is the speed the discs take to load, and the advice that “all you need is one cable” to hook yourself up, the suggestion of “internet access” quietly slipped in later. Learn How To Take Your Favorite Movies On The Go is a plug for the also included Digital Copy, the third disc in this set, which features nothing but the movie in standard definition.
The Blu-ray Disc has all of the above content (minus the Suite promo) but adds in a Backstage Disney BD exclusive, Which Mountain? Discover Hidden References To The Original Movie, that sounds like something pretty cool. Expecting a commentary of sorts, or at least a feature-length trivia track, this actually boils down to just over eight minutes of director Fickman running through the obvious and obscure Witch Mountain ’75, sci-fi and Disney feature elements that he managed to squeeze into the movie. Much of them will be evident to hard core fans, some of whom may even be waiting to hear him rattle off the ones they noticed, but there are also some references that will remain oblivious to all but the hardest sci-fi nuts (the Tron and train engineer connections are particularly fun). This is a nice enough revealing of in-jokes, but is very lightweight considering what can be done with the Blu-ray format.
Lastly, the disc contains the motion code for the D-Box system for those with interactive seating, which could be quite good fun given all the throwing about in a car the characters go through. And…that, unbelievably, is it! No commentary, no behind the scenes documentary on the shooting or effects work, and nothing on the kids taking on the roles once filled by others…this is as flat and boring as Blu-ray gets. There isn’t even the facility for any BD-Live additions at a later date, making this one of the lightest BDs I have yet come across, made to sound impressive by adding the standard definition DVD and the extra computer file disc. One hardly needs the same movie three times in one set when some genuinely interesting supplemental material would be much more appreciated. Poor.
Adding to the effect of getting more bang for your buck, even if the contents inside leave more than a little to be desired, is the glossy slipcover and thick BD case, making a bit play for the amount of discs to be found inside and promoting the Which Mountain? feature as something much greater than it turns out to be. Showing that the more things change the more they stay the same, I was slightly amused to note that the sleeve uses the same typeface as Disney used to on their VHS covers at the time the original Witch Mountain came to tape, which inadvertently gives both versions an extra connection which I highly doubt was intentional. Inside, there’s embarrassingly a booklet promoting the BD-Live feature on Disney BDs that’s non-existent on this release, plus the Movie Rewards code and a push for other Blu-ray/DVD combo packs that we’re being ripped off by. Other than that, the artwork pleasingly reuses the original theatrical art, a rarity in itself these days.
Ink And Paint:
On both DVD and BD, Race To Witch Mountain presents the solid, unified look of a major studio blockbuster release. Disney regularly goes for a slightly glossy sheen on these kinds of movies and director Fickman seems to be happy to go along with that choice, not necessarily bringing anything new to the sci-fi approach, but not desecrating what’s come before either.
The DTS-HD Master Audio certainly will throw your speaker set up around the room, be it from the ground shaking BD or the DVD’s more regular Dolby track. Trevor Rabin’s energetic score is a major component, by turns big and orchestral and at other times smaller and more electronically synthesized. I wasn’t sure it was always doing the right things for what was happening onscreen, but it does keep the all-important pace moving forward, leaving space for the dialogue and the sound effects guys to have fun throwing in laser blasts, crashes and otherworldly atmospherics. French and Spanish 5.1 dubs and subs are also bundled in.
While the original Escape To Witch Mountain will always be a childhood favorite, I can’t say I was appalled in any way with this modern update. It, ultimately, didn’t really need to be made, but that it has been with clear affection for the original may well carry other fans through just enough so as to allow them to have fun with it, if little else. It’s not a groundbreaking addition to the genre by any means, and kids may find more entertainment elsewhere, but it’s also much better than expected and easily outclasses other kid sci-fi movies currently doing the rounds. The disc itself falls painfully short of being a keeper due to the lack of extras, so exciting as the movie might be (though packed with a little too much chase), this Race is worth running for, if only as a decent night’s rental.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?